Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Thanks to Juno, last year antifolk suddenly gained a whole lot more attention. People were piping up, claiming to be huge Moldy Peaches fans, despite the rest of their output sounding nothing like 'Anyone Else But You.' One strange omission to the soundtrack was Jeffrey Lewis, arguably the king of that indefinable genre of antifolk.
'Em Are I' is his fifth album, marking the transition from underground troubadour into respected musician. It also sees Jeff reach new heights in optimism, on opener 'Slogans'. “Now, who's that handsome animal, I feel so good I feel 6 feet tall.” It may be irony, but it feels pretty genuine. Where's the Jeff of yesteryear, begging his girl to not be upset with him?
Oh, there he is. “I wasn't designed to move so fast, I wasn't born to have so much past” he sings on 'Roll Bus Roll', a touching paean to the traveller's life backed by a gentle strum. Sadness is still an important part of being Jeff Lewis. It's yet more clearly illustrated on 'Broken Broken Broken Heart', a song about his break up (incidentally, he started playing the song while his ex-girlfriend was still in the band. Chutzpah, that's what that is). The track works on the paradox, much like Of Montreal, of combining upbeat music, full of handclaps and glee, with tragic lyrics. Over his lengthy antifolk career, this is the closest he's got to a song that could be crowbarred into radio schedules.
The lyrics are arguably the most important part of any Jeff Lewis album, but this album marks further progress on the music side. He's said himself that having to work solely on the music for his Crass covers album last year has helped progress his craft, and it's hard to argue with him here from what's on show on ''Em Are I.' 'To Be Objectified' for one marks a new sophistication and clarity with the musicianship.
Maybe he's even grown up a bit. There are no zombie or ghouls on this album, although there is a pig. It's hard to tell whether this new found maturity is a good or bad thing. Sometimes singing about comic books can be just as therapeutic as singing about heartbreak. It's definitely more escapist.
One notable evolution in the music is the appearance halfway through of 'The Upside Down Cross', penned by his brother Jack. Normally relegated to bass playing duties, the song trawls along for 2 ½ minutes with flourishes of jazz club trumpet, until lyrics about saving the manatee pop up. Whilst bearing close relation to Jack's solo work, it marks a big departure for Jeff, into more avant garde territory than his usual antifolk shenanigans. It works well in breaking up the album, and avoids any threat of the album getting samey.
'Em Are I' is probably one of the best records so far of Jeff's lengthy career. It marks real progression, even after over 10 years of releases. That it is a successful balancing of the tragic and the triumphant is testament to Lewis's skill both as a wordsmith and a musician.
If ever there was a perfect representation of the term 'auteur', David Lynch is it. This ain't no movie magazine, so there shall be no exploration of his disturbing trawls through the human psyche. Needless to say, music often plays an important role within the Lynchian mode. An album of covers of the most important tracks sounds like a good idea, no?
Early evidence suggests the answer is yes. 'Twin Peaks (Falling)' is a pretty version of the classic theme tune, sounding not unlike something Wilco might release. Dirty blues song 'Baby Please Don't Go' does well everything a blues song does. You know what a blues song does. I know what a blues song does. Truax does not reinvent the blues. This is all we need say.
The scattered source material often leads to the flow feeling disjointed. The transition between 'Blue Velvet' and 'I'm Deranged', for one, doesn't quite work. The ending to the latter is particularly abrupt, petering out and simply stopping with a guitar flourish. It sounds like Thomas was supposed to finish it, but was busy trying to pondering what happened in Mulholland Drive.
The Lynchian malaise is prevalent throughout, with 'Audrey's Dance' bearing his trademark unease with a scowl. The meandering bassline and discordant guitars are reminiscent of a backwater diner where the jukebox stops when a stranger walks in. Truax certainly gets laurel garlands and golden plaudits for translating the decaying malodourous feel into his music, without the accompanying visuals.
Many of the songs here don't seem massively reworked. Music didn't need yet another cover of 'Wicked Game', particularly one which does so little to the source material. HIM, REM, Giant Drag, The Royal We, JJ72. Did Truax really need to add his name to the list? Chris Isaak can already swim round his bank Scrooge McDuck-style. Truax's is nice, but so is the original. Only 'Black Tambourine' bucks this trend, being altered into a minimalist strum.
At the end we ask the question- would David Lynch approve? As someone who has been so innovative, so 'out there' (sicks in mouth) as he has, an album of covers isn't going to win his favour. The songs do capture the mood of the movies successfully, and are competently put together. But that sentence is void for two reasons. Number one, why listen to the songs when you can watch the films? They're much better. And number two, since when did competence make something worth listening to? Civil servants are competent. Musicians need something more. And that indefinable 'more' is unfortunately what Truax needs.
It takes two seconds of this album before it becomes clear to all but the registered deaf that Conor has carried on his trend towards country music, that started with parts of 'I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.' This is not a good thing. The move has seen Oberst becoming drabber and drabber, more predictable, more boring. He's not even 30, yet he sounds middle aged, content to churn out dull Texas bar rock.
'Slowly (Oh So Slowly)' lives up to its title. You'd need a pick up, and bad judgement, to wring any enjoyment from the damp towel of a track. 'Roosevelt Room' tries it hand at Desparecidos rock, and largely succeeds, with Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson references mixing with Hammond organ into something epic. It also contains the apposite lines of “Hope you haven't got too lazy, I know you like your apple pie.”
Oberst is kind enough to let his Mystic Valley Band write some songs on 'Outer South'.This may have led to his downfall. There should be some 'never let the drummer write a song' mantra here. It fits. The best songs here are his work, not his band's. And the others stick out like a clown at a funeral.
The Taylor Hollingsworth-penned 'Air Mattress' is awful, cheesy stuff, with a cheap synth line and predictable bar rock structure sullying any of the good done with Oberst's songs. 'To All The Lights In The Windows', with its lyrics mixing religious references and the old Bright Eyes steadfast theme of heartbreak is one of the rare nuggets of gold in the dirty creek.
Oberst seems lax, as if 'Lifted...' is enough of a legacy, and coasting downhill from here is the way to go. While his songs outperform the lesser efforts of his backers, they hardly match his previous peaks. 'Ten Women' is a speck of a melody in search of some decent lyrics in search of some energy in search of the poised beauty of yore. “Ten women, Between you and me, Ten women, The glory and the tragedy” repeated ad nauseum ain't going to win the Pulitzer, and it ain't going to win any Pitchfork plaudits. The man who wrote lines like “I touch the clasp of your locket, with its picture held, some secret you wouldn't tell but let it choke your neck” is gone. There are no signs of him here on this snoozefest.
'Outer South' is bloated, and needs at least five tracks liposuctioned off. Even with radical surgery like that, it's still a mutilated body. There's no soul, just a rudimentary arrangements of instruments, and words in their most nugatory form. I love you Conor, and it's time for an intervention. Stop this. Now.
Papercuts. Nasty things. Blood, sore, painful. All things Jason Robert Quever couldn't be accused of. He was bought up in a Christian commune in California. This would usually lead to a derogatory assessment of religious pop, but it seems to bear no relevance to what he's doing now. Or, if it does, it's hidden well enough that all but the most forensic listener would pass on by, oblivious.
The album trades a fine line in melodic pop, and brings to mind 'Chutes Too Narrow'-era Shins, particularly on 'Dictator's Funeral', which is full of the summery, retro stylings and entwining melodic lines they trade in. Opener 'Once We Walked In the Sunlight' has a firmly beating tune at its middle, and brings to mind the lamented Grandaddy with its keys and guitar interacting to lovely effect.
This record has been released on Devendra Banhart, and Andy Cabic of Vetiver's label, Gnomonsong. 'You Can Have What You Want' often seems, though, to have little in common with either of those artists, choosing West Coast pop over their folk stylings. Only 'Future Primitive' seems to bear some relation to the label bosses work, sounding like one of the choicer cuts from Devendra's 'Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon', with it's powerful 60s guitar lines tangling.
There are a few religious hints dropped throughout the record. A cheesy electronic church style organ features throughout, suggestive of his religious upbringing. It features prominently on 'The Machine Will Tell Us So', which does that slowburn epic indie thing really well, sounding not unlike a fuzzy version of Grizzly Bear. The title of 'A Peculiar Hallelujah' has obvious religious hints, but seems to be an odd tale of “boarding a plastic ship in the rain.”
That's just a guess though, as the vocals are so drenched in reverb that all they sound like is “blllarrrrhhhherraaarrrbbbooelllleeerrr.” The use of analogue recording adds a pleasing warmth to proceedings, but in trying to ape Deerhunter's production style without that band's clarity of aim, Papercuts ends up feeling a bit cold at heart. Like a baked Alaska.
The lethargy of the album eventually starts to get draining, the tracks merging into one slow paced trawl through melancholic pop songs, vocals emerging from another room. 'Jet Plane' is more guilty than the rest, it's melodies struggling to bloom under the leaden weight of its tempo.
Sometimes it feels like the production has been used to cover a lack of ideas within the music. And that's never a good thing. Too often it all fades into the background like that fey friend you have, with the long fringe and the stoop. As pretty, echoey pop with a paisley patterned look it makes nice swirls on the stereo. But something to have you whirling round your room, or to raise your pulse even slightly? Look elsewhere, son. Look elsewhere.
The woman responsible for tracks including 'Fuck The Pain Away', and whose last album was entitled 'Impeach My Bush' has returned to us with a relatively clean track. Sure, it is still ostensibly about bumping nasties. This time though, the lyrics are acceptable for daytime radio. The most racy they get is when Peaches “Let it be and hold you tight, Scream at me for just one night.” Hardly going to get BBC radio bosses sweating into their cappuccinos. Where's the girl who declared “Motherfuckers want to get with me, lay with me, love with me.”
She's been domesticated. 'Talk To Me' even sounds a bit like The Gossip. This is definitely not a good thing. Peaches used to have jagged electric beats. This new version seems tame. At least the electro returns for B side 'More.' She even brings back some of her old bravado, promising she's “going to whip this party into shape.” If there was a little bit more melody in it, the track would provide the perfect vehicle for her return. With 'Talk To Me' she seems a pale shadow of her old strap on wearing self.